Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chapter 24

This is the shortest chapter in the book. It is one page long. Laarmans is back at home, where Edam cheese is no longer served. The faces are relaxed, and he is grateful for his wife and children as they are.

With this, the book ends. This blog ends in a few days.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chapter 23

In a way, this chapter takes us back to the beginning. Frans Laarmans is headed to the cemetery, where he goes every year. This is the first year he's going to see both parents.

On the way there, he buys some flowers. As in the beginning of the book, he is far from perfect. While carrying them around, he wonders about how he looks to others. Is he beyond reproach, or is the bouquet so big that he looks silly? Similarly, once he is before his parents' graves, he makes a conscious effort to grieve in the correct way, doffing his hat for a minute of silence.

While looking around for their graves, there is some surprise grief as he passes by the marker that reveals the existence of a second daughter who died as a little girl.

Once again, Dick Matena's scenery brilliantly adds to the story without being distracting. My favorite scene is on p. 279. We see Frans from the side, and he is looking away. Our attention is directed to what he is looking at, a grey scene of hats, umbrellas and bowed heads as Antwerp gets pounded by rain and snow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chapter 22

This is another very short chapter.

In spite of the resignation, Van Schoonbeke invites Laarmans to yet another gathering. He had been concerned about his absence.

There, he finds out that the old lawyer has died, and a younger man has taken his place there.

The gathering ends on a cordial note.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter 21

Two out of three.

Laarmans begs off again, citing illness. In this very short chapter, he sends in his resignation to Hornstra, "For health reasons." Three days later, he gets a letter from his rep in Bruges saying that sales are going well. "Perhaps I'll get my five percent."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 Things to See and Do in Belgium

Well, this is my top 10. If you start learning a language, you inevitably want to go where it's used. Reading about places also makes me want to go there. In my last blog, I mentioned wanting to see the Mak family's Schiedam and Medan. Now, I would like to see Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to see a lot of things in Belgium.

  • The Hergé Museum. Often, I am more interested in the trivia surrounding something than I am in the thing itself. I lost interest long before the end of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, but I went on a guided tour of Holmes' London, which started from where his address would be, had it ever existed. So it is with Hergé. I did not grow up with Tintin. Although I find the comics boring, I like the drawings. From what I have seen, the museum looks great.
  • The Brabo Fountain. Going there would be the beginning of seeing Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to walk around the area I have seen in so many of Dick Matena's drawings. I would attempt to recreate the wanderings of Frans Laarmans. A beer and some cheese would definitely be included.
  • A Baseball Game. There are lots of clubs. Sports are best when they're played for the love of the game.
  • The Beach. I like to go to the beach whenever I'm at a place that has one. I have been to beaches in Scotland and Chicago. Even in bad weather, a walk on the beach is great.
  • The Waterfront. I have always liked looking at boats in the water.
  • Bicycling. I have been to Europe a few times, but I have never ridden a bike there.
  • Waffles. One of my most vivid memories of Belgium is buying waffles from street vendors. We don't have anything like them in the US. Our Belgian waffles are just giant flavorless things that look the part.
  • In Flanders Fields Museum How come the Doughboys became the Bonus Marchers? What can we learn from this largely forgotten generation? They were pushed aside early on. Why? What have we been avoiding all this time?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 20

Back to work.

In this short chapter, Frans Laarmans returns to his old job. He is hailed by everyone, and he settles into his old desk and routine. It becomes clear that he was well liked and had friendships there.

I found this chapter unusual in a way. In the stories I have seen in this vein, the protagonist either goes straight to the top of his new profession or sets a new record for depths of ruin. Willem Elsschot takes a more realistic approach. While the cheese venture didn't go well, some sales were made. The old job may have been a dream crusher, but it wasn't so bad that he couldn't go back.

Dick Matena's drawings show what has changed and stayed the same since 1933. The office interiors at General Marine look like any modern office in an old building. Just add computers, and you're in 2010. The exteriors are another matter. Outside, there is the heavy cast iron, steel and brickwork of old industrial Europe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 19

This is another poignant chapter, but there is some comic relief. Mr. and Mrs. Laarmans get a visit from Mr. Hornstra. Rather than face the owner of the cheese company, they hide behind drawn curtains.

While Mr. Hornstra is looking in to see if anyone is home, Mrs. Peeters helps out by pressing her face to the doorbell and ringing it herself. Horstra offers her cash, but she turns it down.

At the end, Mr. and Mrs. Laarmans cry together, alone. It's as if the whole world has been blotted out. It is always nice to see some love between them.

On another note, while I'm against filling in back stories and making this longer on film, I have to say that Mrs. Peeters has the greatest potential for a spinoff. She is the classic nosey and annoying neighbor, long before such things became cliches. She could carry her own project.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to promote Cheese, a graphic novel in English.

1. Send Dick Matena and his drawings to Comic-Con. This is where most of the likely audience can be reached. There are lots of similar events.

2. Promote to the academic world. This helps build prestige. Belgian literature is not well known here.

3. Promote to the art world. Art in museums always gets respect. Print signings at galleries would also be a good idea.

4. Do cross promotions with other Belgian products. Beer congescenti would be especially receptive. Belgian chocolate is also a good starting point. Also, there is travel, which always attracts attention. "Win a trip to Willem Elsschot's Antwerp!" The same trip could also be raffled off as Dick Matena's Antwerp, depending on whether the promotion emphasized the text or the drawings. So far, I have been able to pair the book's cover and a scene where Laarmans takes a nighttime walk in Chapter 14 with photos of the Brabo Statue.

5. Finally, cheese should be served at all promotional events. Dutch Edam cheese is a must, because it is mentioned so much in the book. Belgian cheese is also a must, even though the book concerns imported cheese from the Netherlands. With the book's title and origin, people will expect it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chapter 18

This is one of the longest, most poignant chapters in the book. As a result, it's hard to read.

It opens with another cliche endemic to stories of failing businesses. This time, it's a man proposing a complicated takeover deal.

Laarmans feels like an idiot. He takes stock of everything, looking at his office and everything in it. He continues in this vein, heading for the basement, where he repackages his cheese to send it away in a taxi. Half a ball of Edam is positioned flat side down, so that the crate will look complete at first glance.

From there he goes walking through a rainy Antwerp, stopping at a bar. There is a great interior monologue about his responsibilities to his family. He is very remorseful over what has happened. Best line: If I weren't such a miserable free thinker, I wouldn't have a prayer.

It is during this walk that Dick Matena shows his mastery. While the text is strictly internal, Matena sends Laarmans walking through Antwerp without being distracting. The reader gets into the text, looking on the people around Laarmans with a bit of wonder and envy, the way a person under a lot of stress might. Are they going through all this? Are their lives any better? There are enough extras in this story to make one wonder, but they offer no consolation nor additional pain. The protagonist is still very much alone.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Reading this book raises so many questions.

Is it really cinematic?

In many ways, it is. Again, it's very visual, even though the text doesn't lend itself to such an adaptation. The problem of how to fill space remains. In comics different shaped panels are used to fill the page. Each panel is a different screen ratio. There are high narrow rectangles, squares, along with some wide flat rectangles that mirror the cinema's current ratio. A frame can take any shape.

Are wide screens wide?

No, there are just screen ratios projected in different sizes. This is especially true now. Theater screens are getting smaller, while home screens are getting bigger. TV shows are often played through computers, presentation projectors, and high quality sound systems. This can make the viewing experience more enveloping than what one finds at many theaters.

Purists used to complain about TV prints of movies, which cut off the sides of the screen. Now, we have wide screen prints, that cut off the top and bottom of movies shot in the old ratio. Recently, I saw a trailer for a European theatrical rerelease of Casablanca. I knew something was wrong, but I had to watch it a few times to figure out that it had been cut up to look wider.

Film historians often look back to This Is Cinerama and the scene where the screen suddenly widens, exploding with color and lush visuals.

So, why aren't wide screens wide? Because there is no variation. With no comparison, it's just a surface for a projected image. There are many ratios, but none are spectacular.

Why are movies based on comics often flat?

Because, an artist's tool is no longer used. In movies, there is only one frame shape from beginning to end. Dick Matena is a master of the close-up, but he doesn't waste space. Often, a small fraction of a page is used to show a face. By comparison, a camera has to blunder in for a close-up, filling the screen with a lot of extraneous scenery, because nobody has a face shaped like a wide low rectangle.

What can be done?

The screen ratio can change during a film. In the silent cinema, filmmakers often used irises. Instead of moving in, the camera would keep its distance, and an iris would close around a particular object. Back then, almost all screens were big.

The iris fell out of favor before television, but the prevalence of small screens meant that such a technique was out of the question. Now, screens everywhere a big enough for irises, ratio changes and other shape shifting. The question of how much is too much can only be answered by trying out various techniques, but the wide low rectangle has clearly run its course.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chapter 17

This is one of the book's shortest chapters, coming in at 3 pages.

Frans Laarmans is back at home, and his kids are fighting. His son has sold a case of cheese. He taunts his younger sister, because she hasn't sold any. She finally physically attacks him.

The chapter ends as Frans intervenes by sending his son to his room and kissing his daughter.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chapter 16

Frans Laarmans is never confident. Each piece of news is greeted with an internal, "Oh no," and panic. The chapter begins with a letter from Hornstra, the Dutch company he sells for. They're coming for an inspection. His panic leads to a cliche well known to employees of sinking companies: He goes to a consultant. He describes himself as, "Like a man going behind his doctor's back and running off to a quack."

The advice given is fairly standard. He is told to carry himself with confidence, and speak as though he had the backing of the entire Dutch cheese industry.

From there he goes to a cheese shop, and stops to gaze in the window. His visit is ill-timed, coming when the store is clogged with customers. He tries again when it's empty. He tries again, with a perfected pitch that is not understood. He wonders why this only happens when he tries to sell something.

Still, he gets a meeting with the boss. He is ushered into the office, where an order is placed for 14 tons. Then, the boss finds out that Frans is with Hornstra and decides to forget the whole thing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some of Belgium's Cultural Near Misses

Reading about Belgium reminds me of Portugal, always overshadowed. Amalia Rodrigues was overshadowed by Edith Piaf, and so on. These cultural near misses almost put the country front and center in the world's consciousness.

Les Damoiselles d'Antwerpen, Pablo Picasso, 1906. Picasso first got the idea for his famous painting in Antwerp. Unfortunately, he suffered the painter's equivalent of writer's block, painting several studies before burning them in frustration before his horrified friends. On the train ride home through France, he calmed down after a meatball sandwich in Avignon. He started sketching again and changed the title.

Party i Belgien, Stig Dagerman, 1950. Dagerman took an extended vacation to Belgium in 1949. He excitedly wrote about it for days, putting a roll of paper in his typewriter in an innovation parallel to Kerouac's. Dagerman's publisher said the manuscript ran counter to his image, in that it was, "Too festive."

Gidget Goes Belgian, 1964. After the movie was edited, producers decided that the genre was long in the tooth. It was shelved and nearly forgotten about. There was a resurgence of interest among film scholars once it leaked that the scene where she waterskis through the canals in Bruges inspired the waterskiing scene in Apocalypse Now.

A Briefcase Full of Oats, Sergio Leone, 1975. At the suggestion of Salvador Dali, Leone decided to shoot a surrealist western, set in modern Europe. A moody Clint Eastwood was filmed, dressed in a duster and cowboy boots carrying a briefcase overflowing with oats through seedy bars in Dunkirk. Financing fell through after the first day of shooting. Some of Leone's silent footage survives on YouTube.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 15

The action begins at Van Schoonbeke's perpetual party. For Laarmans, the endless congratulations are wearing thin. He senses that any prestige is for his host, not for him. Van Schoonbeke ups the ante by proclaiming to all that Frans Laarmans is the new chairman of the cheese trade association.

The next morning, he gets a letter confirming what he was told. From there, he meets with four other members who have been in the business their whole lives. They go to a meeting with a government minister, who proposes that 10% of their profits go to local cheesemakers.

Frans blows up, saying that he has, "Had enough." Surprisingly, the minister proposes a better deal, and the cheese men thank him on the way out.

Before the meeting, he had tried to beg off for the reason that got him a leave from his old job, illness. Afterwards, he asks if his chairmanship has come to an end. "We don't need you anymore," is the ominous reply.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is this a new genre?

Maybe it's at least a new subgenre. If this is not a new idea, it's definitely different. I would call it a, "Graphics added novel." The original text of Willem Elsschot's work is there in its entirety. Dick Matena drew around it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 14

I have always been fascinated by the difference between period pieces and works produced at the time. With too many TV channels, everything is a rerun, but it's still easy to tell the difference. Period pieces fixate on details people want to remember. Watch Mad Men, and you'll see the camera linger on the furniture. Cars are beautiful, and the camera lingers there too. For contrast, watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. Cars and furniture show up in the background, and they stay there. Although the movie was clearly made at the time, it was as well produced as Mad Men. The attitude towards its surroundings gives it away. In Breakfast cars are polished, but many of them are ugly. Off-brand makes and models show up. Cars simply go by, as they do in real life.

Dick Matena's adaptation of Kaas falls into both categories. The text was written in 1933, while the drawings were copyrighted in 2008. To his credit, Matena does not beat The Depression to death. He could have populated his drawings with the Belgian equivalents of veterans selling apples and, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" but he didn't. Instead, he stayed true to the author's vision of the events as they unfolded. As a result, I was a bit surprised to finally see The Depression become part of the story in Chapter 14.

Until he leaves his job at General Marine, Frans Laarmans lives in a closed world. He goes home and to work. When his mother dies, he meets different people, and his world starts to open. He decides there might be more money and glory in the cheese business.

In this Chapter, his world opens enough for him to see society's margins. All sorts of people come to his house, looking for jobs or a ball of cheese. Even his youngest brother-in-law shows up, a diamond cutter trying to live in an era when work is way down.

From there, Frans goes to Brussels to look in on his reps. He is unable to find either of them. One would seem to have given a bogus address, though the mail gets there. He goes to the other's house, only to find a man who says he's, "Not interested in the cheese story."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter 13

This chapter has a lot of comedy, like a 1960s movie. It begins with some irony, as he goes to visit his neighbor, Mrs. Peeters. She is sick in bed, looking very ill. In Chapter 11, Frans had been put off by her nosiness. He had said, "As far as I'm concerned, Mrs. Peeters can drop dead!"

From there, the chapter goes on in the same vein, with too many people coming over at the wrong times and saying the wrong things. The only thing missing from the movies that would popularize this later is the long hallway, with excess people running in and out of the rooms, opening and closing doors.

The first visitor was his brother. After listening to a summary of the business, he points out that it will take 30 years to sell the first shipment of cheese.

Then, he decides to double down, and he runs an ad looking for salesmen. Tons of letters come in. The doorbell rings, and it's people from his old job, with some commemorative gifts. They hope he'll come back.

The chapter ends with his wife wistfully cooking dinner.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More reasons to visit Belgium

A busy street in Antwerp is filled with giddy tourists. An announcer interviews one after another.

Anncr: Hey! What brings you to Belgium?

A: I'm here for the weather!

Anncr: We already talked about that. How come you're in Belgium?

B: We're here for the great works of art!

Anncr: Boooring. You! What do you like about Belgium?

C: Antwerp is de stad van Elsschot!

Anncr: You're a cheap plant! Hey, why are you two in Belgium?

D: We're here to lose weight!

Anncr: Really? Tell me more!

E: The food is fantastic. Great fries, killer waffles and the best chocolate in the world!

Anncr: Is this part of a diet?

D: Yes, we're on the Snikta Diet, which calls for carbs and chocolate. Belgium is the best place to stick to your diet!

Anncr: What if it doesn't work?

D: Then we'll have to come back!

Everyone in the area breaks into wild applause.

Anncr: Come to Belgium anyway!

Applause continues.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter 12

Chapter 12 is a triumph of polyphony. The interaction set up between the text and illustrations is masterful. Matena's drawings show what happens to Frans as he walks around Antwerp. Meanwhile, Frans' thoughts are in the office at his old job, tracking the day's progress.

In this chapter, Frans starts pounding the pavement to sell his cheese. He is soon distracted by his earlier obsession of getting office accessories. He starts looking for a desk and a typewriter to go with his stationery. To help his sales, he buys a St. Joseph statue, which he soon discards, leaving it on a windowsill.

After a day of aimless walking around, he takes some cheese to Von Schoonbeke's, where it meets with great approval. His image starts to become undone when he asked about GAFPA's other products. He doesn't want to tell the truth, that he only sells cheese.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Chapter 11

Frans goes home. There is one crate of cheese for sampling. There is no ceremony, but great anticipation as they finally open it and taste it.

His brother walks in as usual, and he says it's the best cheese he's ever tasted.

Frans himself is the one person who doesn't want any. He tries it because everyone is looking.

The chapter closes with his brother pointing out that Frans needs to get started. They will be expecting him to sell lots of cheese, and this order is just the beginning. From there, he heads out into the streets of Antwerp.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Conveniently located, only 3700 miles from New York

Yesterday, anabasisx commented about the above slogan for visiting Belgium. It would be perfect if Paris had no airports. Sadly, it does, and there are many train stations within 40 minutes of Paris.

There has to be something better than, "Come to Belgium, and leave." Anabasisx said that it should be, "The heart of Europe." They could talk about being the place where Latin and Germanic cultures meet. It would be sold on the basis of luxurious efficiency. Instead of wandering all over Europe for different things, tourists could go to Belgium and see it all. The people at Visit Belgium shouldn't make the country seem like it's in the middle of nowhere. Instead, they should turn Belgium's borders to their advantage. "15 minutes to France, Germany or Holland," would be much better.

Still, I would sell Belgium as a destination in itself.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter 10

This was a short chapter, but the reading was slow going.

Frans takes delivery of his load of cheese. While trying to look like he's in charge, it becomes apparent to everyone that he's a rookie. He questions the delivery expenses and the opened crate. One of the warehouse men explains that the crate was opened by customs. He also hears that there was a "gift" along the way, and that the manifest is falsified, with less high tax cheese written up than is actually included.

Once again, there is more great scenery. The warehouse is a giant underground room, with a big arch. Frans also goes walking in the port area, where we get to see more people, machinery and fog.

While I have joked a lot about Belgian weather, Matena's drawings point to how Belgium might be promoted. In current travel advertising, there is a prevailing orthodoxy that everything has to be a bright tropical day or a sunny ski trip. Matena's Belgium has a calm cool beauty that would translate well to travel posters and a larger campaign.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some Observations

I wonder what inspired Dick Matena to make Kaas into a graphic novel. Was it the movies? It's hard to say, never having seen any of them. The main character and his brother look exactly like pictures of Elsschot himself at different stages of his life. I'm guessing it wasn't the movies.

It's hard to say what moves an artist. I suppose Matena was born to draw, and he was able to visualize Kaas as a graphic novel.

That being said, it's a great achievement. This is not a visual story at all. Most of the action takes place inside Frans' head. He thinks over social situations and wonders what is on the minds of others. There is almost no action. Still, as I wrote about Chapter 6, the reactions and expressions of the letter reader fit remarkably well. The drawings bring Antwerp in the 30s alive with great detail. Matena's other artistic achievement is that he knows when to stop drawing. His visuals help carry the story forward, but they are never cluttered.
Because this book is relatively short, there is a lot of room for back stories. Again, I hope anyone who adapts the graphic novel to the cinema resists the temptation to fill in details as to the achievement gap between the brothers and why the doctor seems to be a bachelor. Any such additions would make the story drag.
It seems that for Frans, being Flemish adds weight to his almost hapless existence. As the book begins, he works for an English company. The big boss is a Francophone. The cheese business happens in Dutch, but it's across the border in Amsterdam. Although it was a big modern city, Elsschot's Antwerp was a backwater.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chapter 9

This post also includes the end of Chapter 8.

It seems that my volume is a collectors' edition. There are missing pages. In their place, pages from earlier in the book are reprinted. Anyway, I got through it using links from deBuren. The drawings and the complete text are free on the web. They are also great tools for anyone who wants to follow along and lives in an area where Dutch language books are hard to find.

Chapter 8 ends with the protagonist's bossy wife getting accustomed to using the phone to harangue local businesses.

Chapter 9 opens with another trip to Van Schoonbeke's, where he gets to show off his new stationery.

All of his holding forth comes to a halt as his kids show up. The cheese he ordered is due to arrive. Suddenly, he's like the speculator joked about in economics classes, faced with taking delivery of an impossibly large order of a commodity. From there, it's back home, where everyone remains mad at him.

In this chapter, his wife addresses him directly, and we find out that his name is Frans.

One thing I don't quite understand is how he refers to his daughter. He says, "She looked like a hinny.*" At another point, she is referred to as, "The young donkey in question." I wonder if this is particular to Elsschot or if referring to little girls this way is a common Belgianism. I remember a Spanish teacher who talked of her days learning English with dismay, "Why should clams be happy?**"

*A hinny is a hybrid animal similar to a mule, but it is made from the opposite gender combination of horse and donkey.

**In Spanish the saying is, "Happy as a worm." Feliz como una lombriz.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Belgian tourism through the years.

White title on black screen: THE BIG TRAVEL AGENCY- 1965.

The camera shows two well dressed people in period clothes on what looks like the set of Mad Men.

A: We overbooked the Paris flight. What can we do?

B: Just give them tickets to Belgium. Lots of people speak French there, and they'll never know the difference.

A: OK.

White title on black screen: THE BIG TRAVEL AGENCY- 1977.

This time, the set and the clothes are in exaggerated 70s styles.

A: We can't send the overbooked Paris people to Belgium any more. They found out about the Eiffel Tower. First they can't find it; then they get mad.

B: Hmm. Maybe we could tell people to make Belgium their first choice. They have great fries, the best beer in the world, and The Death of Marat hangs there. A lot of people think it's in Paris.

A: You're right. They have lots of European architecture too. It's in Europe, you know.

2 seconds of silence.

B: It'll never work.

Belgian tourism logo.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 8

I have always liked scenery. I started watching for it when I bought a used travel book with a 1957 postcard of Veracruz inside. Shortly after that, I saw the movie Danzón. It's about a woman in Mexico City whose dance partner disappears. She goes to Veracruz to look for him. She falls in love with someone else, and the camera leaves her and her new acquaintance alone to wander the city.

In Chapter 8, Dick Matena takes us on a walk through Antwerp. While the main character is thinking of what to name his company, we go people watching. There are people running errands, walking their dogs, and chatting. The scenery behind the inner dialog is fantastic.

The decision process runs through Dutch names, French and finally, English. He settles on the far from idiomatic "General Antwerp Feeding Products Association," whose acronym, "GAFPA" appears to sound good in Dutch. He translated a slightly deceptive cognate too literally. It should have been, "Food Products..." In the context of 1933, the name he chose sounds like a company selling accessories for feeding livestock, though the word would have been, "Feed." In a modern context, it sounds like a specialized medical supply house that would sell products having to do with G-tubes, which as far as I can tell, were invented in 1979. In considering names, he goes up the local socioeconomic scale, from Dutch to French to English. His old job was at an English company run by a Francophone.

In a surprisingly modern twist, we see him deciding on a home office, instead of one in the city. He proudly orders a phone, letterhead stationery and some office supplies.

In this chapter, there is a break in his wife's unwavering dismay and skepticism. We see her resigned to go along for the ride.

There is an interesting bit where he decides on a telegram address, consisting of a few letters. The format makes me wonder how technology took a different route in Europe. American telegrams were sent to physical addresses, while what he is mulling over looks more like what would evolve into Telex in later years. I vaguely remember hearing of Telex as a child, but when I went to Europe for the first time, it seemed like every business had a phone and Telex number.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 7

Tension rises in the protagonist's home as his move is viewed more as giving up his job, instead of a transition to something new. His wife is petrified, and his children have long faces.

His older brother, an overachieving doctor, who rides a bicycle even though he can afford not to, comes in. He is a calming influence on the house, coming every day for a glass of wine and looking after everyone's health. After listening to both of them, he counsels a three month leave and leaves a certificate so that he can get it.

From there, it's off to the offices of his old job to line things up. He returns home, reporting that he will not take any paid sick leave. The chapter ends with his saying, "And now, the world of cheese was open to me."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ladyface and the GPS

Yes, having been there on the same trip that took me to the Netherlands, I can say that Belgium is truly a land of great fries. Recently, the GF discovered another Belgian restaurant in Southern California, which brings the total I know of to two.

Ladyface is located in Agoura Hills, just off the Kanan Rd offramp. It's in a strip mall, of all places. Malls are generally soulless holes, but as the chains fall on hard times, vacancy creeps up, and independents start sprouting up again.

It's a very upscale pub, transplanted here. Menu items are fish and chips, and burgers and so on, but it's all very high quality. My burger was made from grass fed beef, and it had bleu cheese melted over it.

When you order fries, there are choices of sweet or regular potatoes, and a variety of options for seasonings and dipping sauces. We got regular potatoes with salt and pepper. One of the dipping sauces is a Belgium meets the US ale and ketchup sauce that was incredible.

While driving around, I reset the GPS to speak "Nederlands-Belgie." During the blog about Geert "Big" Mak, I drove around with it set on Dutch from the Netherlands. I was amazed to hear a difference through my limited understanding. If the GPS is correct, Dutch in the Netherlands is more monotone, while the Belgian variety is more animated.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Belgian weather. Always a good reason to visit.

A couple is sitting on the beach. We can only see the edges of their chairs, which frame a table between them. On the table, there two Coronas. Each one has a green onion sticking out of it. They are on a sunny empty beach, typical of Corona commercials.

A: I need better weather. This isn't scenery. This is a screen saver.

B: Honey, you should have told me you wanted better weather. We can vacation at a place where the seascape is more dynamic.

A: Good. The ocean should move, not just sit there. Are you sure things will be different?

B: Not just different, better! From now on, we're going to Belgium!

Cut to the same furniture on a wet Belgian beach during a driving rainstorm. There are two Belgian beers on the table.

A: Now that's dynamic! Look at the whitecaps and the energy!

B: And there's no heat problem!

Announcer: Come to Belgium for the weather.

Copyright notice: Same as for the other commercials.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chapter 6

When you do something in a new language, you always hit limits. As I neared the end of De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century) I overcame many limits and ran into one when Big Mak started quoting Lucebert. Poetry can be hard in your own language.

This time, I ran into Dutch legalese for the first time. While I was able to read past the redundancy endemic to the field, I was unable to understand all of it as well as I would have liked. It was some consolation that the main character, who had experience typing contracts, also didn't understand it until his wife pointed out paragraph 9.

Even so, I wanted to understand all of it. As you learn a language, it's like listening to a faraway radio station start to come in, or looking through a lens that finally starts to focus. When you hit your limits, the faraway station fades to static.

Chapter 6 is an extension of the book's dynamic, alternating between the protagonist's great luck when he's out and his skeptical wife at home. This time, he comes home with a great salary and a contract. He has missed dinner, and his wife is unhappy. He points out in the letter that makes up the book that he's experienced in high register Dutch, while his wife is not. Then, she finds a flaw in the contract having to do with how at the end of employment, he will not be able to make any claims against the cheese company. During this ego deflation, his son chimes in.

Every so often, we see the letter reader, and I wonder who he is. I remember learning that half of acting is reacting. The reader's reactions fit, but I wonder what he's doing there. Does he have a role later, or is he a stand-in for us?

A pun?

Maybe it's just an expression. I just made a connection. At the end of Chapter 5, our hero says he felt like a knight, "Ridder" in Dutch. Elsschot's real last name was, "de Ridder." I wonder if it's a pun or a coincidence, which happened as a result of the protagonist's use of a common expression. If it is a pun, I wonder if it was part of the original text or something added for this edition.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chapter 5

Big business.

Our hero is climbing, even though he doesn't know why. He's off on a business trip to Amsterdam, all expenses paid. It's a step up socially. He's a businessman among businessmen. He is better at holding his own in conversations where status is important.

His hesitance and silence is often taken as great wisdom. When asked how much product he needs to start, he hesitates. The man he is talking to nods and says, "Yes, little by little is the way to go."

At one point, he stops by a cheese shop and gazes in the window. It's different now that he looks at it from the point of view of one in the business.

I saw him looking in awe, and saw something different. Cheese shops are all but extinct in the US. They have been subsumed by cheese sections at larger stores. Those that do exist are exercises in snob appeal, not going businesses. The store he sees is extremely small, and the cheeses are extremely big. Nowadays, a couple of pounds is usually as big as it gets. The wheels he gazes upon are enormous. Also, he rattles off the names of a number of varieties in the window. The American cheese market is mainly American and cheddar. You can find all of the other varieties, but they aren't prominently displayed.

Once he returns to the business clique at home, Van Schoonbeke introduces him as one in the food wholesaling business, as opposed to one who deals in cheese. Once again, it's a verbal promotion for unknown reasons, and he leaves, "Feeling like a knight."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Another Commercial

Logo: The Dutch Language Film Festival


The camera is looking out at a sea of empty seats in a movie theater. It looks like the opening for a movie review TV show. In the center, there are two people sitting next to each other. The camera zooms in. We see Geert "Big" Mak wearing a big housecoat over his usual jeans and sweater. He holds a cigar butt that is obviously a prop. He is without his glasses. Next to him is Nelly Frijda. She wears jeans, a sweater and Mak's glasses. Both speak in Dutch with subtitles, unless otherwise noted.

NF: (It's almost time for The Dutch Language Film Festival.)

GM: (Do you think the Americans will like it?)

NF: (Sure, they'll like it better if they speak Dutch.)

GM: (Oh, is this a gag where the subtitles are different from what is said?)

NF: Badly dubbed by a woman with a completely different voice. (Oh no. In fact, even when the voices are dubbed everything will be accurately translated into English.)

GM: (Well, why will speaking Dutch make it better?)

NF: (It's the cultural context. You can translate, but still lose so much. For example, this commercial is hilarious, but only a Dutch speaker would know why.)

Five seconds of silence go by while they stare blankly at the camera. Then, they laugh uncontrollably for a few seconds, then stop.

NF: (See?)

GM: (Yes, but I think they'll enjoy the festival anyway. Do we have time for another joke?)

Logo: The Dutch Language Film Festival

NF: (No, the trailer's ending.)

Copyright notice: Feel free to link to this commercial or quote from it. If you produce it, that's €50 and a copy on DVD for my mother.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chapter 4

While reading this book as it is, I keep thinking of how it might be as a movie. Due to the nature of the visuals, this has to be moving paintings, not moving pictures. If this gets outsourced to a shop that sends back the usual flat faces one finds in animation, it will be terrible. It takes a lot to draw an expressive face. Matena's adaptation of Kaas is built around expressive faces. Even the shots of the man reading the letter add to the story.

While reading this short chapter, I listened to many Dutch language podcasts and watched today's nieuws. I keep trying to pound the language into my head. I understand more than in the past, but quite a bit goes by.

The story gets poignant in Chapter 4. We can see why the protagonist (Is his name Oscar? I saw a panel that makes me wonder.) gets taken in. He wants to be somebody. His skeptical wife makes some remarks I didn't quite understand. What seems to be good news isn't taken well. This is a man who was hired shortly after 1900 and rode out WWI. It seems he would have a lot to be proud of, but even during a depression, it's hard to stay at the bottom of the totem pole, especially after so long.

He visualizes saying, "Goodbye," to his friends at the bar. He wants his wife to share in his joy, but she is leery.

The chapter ends with him getting a telegram summoning him to the Hornstra company in Amsterdam. Although there is a promise to reimburse his expenses, it looks daunting.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chapter 3

At long last, I'm in familiar territory. The story has taken a turn to a formula I know well: Everyman gets swept away by events. It brings Hitchcock to mind, though this book predates when he hit his stride with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps.

Mr. Van Schoonbeke draws our hero in closer, bringing him into a conversation with rich and powerful friends. We see him squirm as he remains largely silent instead of making a foolish effort to hold his own. He is introduced by way of mentioning his company. Those present are left to assume the rest, which leads them not to infer that he is a clerk.

The title comes from this chapter, as a Dutch friend, "In cheese," is mentioned at the close.

As I read this, I got to thinking about how it would work as a film. My recommendations:

1. Length: Let it be as long or as short as it needs to be. The book is already cinematic. What happened to Dr. Seuss' work should be instructive. He wrote great little books that made great little cartoons. Once lengthy back stories were added to make feature films, his work became very tedious.

2. Narration: Use a narrator. One problem with the art world is that it's a forum for those with no professed orthodoxy to invent their own or slavishly follow the -ism of the month. A major problem with cinema today is, "Don't tell me, show me." While Murnau made it work in The Last Laugh, it will not work every time. A book's "Uncomfortable 10 minute silence," does not need to be a 10 minute scene. It is worth noting that film noir moved fast because of skillful narration.

3. Subtitles or dubbing? The combination for export prints should be what I saw on an apparently rare print of Diary of a Country Priest. I have seen the film a few times, but I only ran across this print once. The narration was dubbed into English. The dialog was left in French and subtitled. In this way, reading was kept to a minimum, while original voices were preserved.

I read a few things about Kaas, and I saw that it has been a movie at least twice. Still, I think the Matena version is worth filming. If it doesn't work in Belgium, it might still be a good way to introduce the story to other countries.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Compromise your privacy!

Thanks to my brother, you can compromise your privacy and follow this blog on Facebook! You can also enjoy the limited benefits of being a follower with Google Friend Connect. Wow!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chapter 2

One big difference between Kaas and most American novels is that there is no, "Sensitive writer," nonsense. "I'm just the nice guy telling the story about these other people and their dysfunction."

Instead, we get a narrator who begins his story while drinking too much. From there, he goes home and unsuccessfully tries to go to bed without waking his wife.* Then, there's a knock on the door, and he's summoned to his mother's side. In a warm room full of people, the beer makes its presence felt. He narrowly avoids vomiting. He feels the appropriate emotions, but he's really concerned about how to make an exit. Finally, he leaves, following his brother out the door.

At the funeral, he meets Mr. Van Schoonbeke, whose name looks like a tagname that I can't quite render into English without a long explanation and speculation.

The family is obviously Catholic. There is a nun at the house when the mother dies. She is a kind of gentle angel of death. A priest is shown at the funeral.

The story started me wondering about religious diversity in Europe and how history is taught outside of the US. While learning about Europe, we hear about how it divided up into Catholic and Protestant countries. It is only later that we find out that such borders weren't so exact, and that after the religious wars, alliances were made along different lines that changed over time.

In the US, we learn about other countries in an American context. Consequently, we learn a lot about Britain before 1776. Britain reappears briefly in 1812 and again in World War 1, if the class gets that far. In the Southwest, as in Mexico, Spain disappears in 1810. The countries we learn about either had big empires or a big part in settling the country.

American classes on recent history cover modern Europe, but there is almost nothing about how it got that way.

Belgium mainly shows up on maps. Occasionally, it gets a brief mention as NATO headquarters or the capital of The European Union. The part of our population most aware of it is beer connoisseurs. Belgian beer is in vogue right now.

*I wondered about this course of action. If he succeeded, he could lie and say he got home earlier. He would run into trouble if she had gone to sleep 15 minutes before he arrived. She might think he arrived even later than he did. On the other hand, if he made no effort and let her wake up, she could look at the clock.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Charitable Contribution

One worthy organization that nearly missed the Nobel Peace Prize is Réclames Sans Frontières or Commercials Without Borders. Known to most as RSF, it reaches out to the economically disadvantaged to reinforce their basic human identity as consumers. Here in the Americas, hurricane season is upon us. RSF teams are already waiting to be dispatched to bring in displays of new cars, vacations and jewelry wherever disaster might strike.

My contribution to RSF is below. It's part of the second wave of aid. When media infrastructure is destroyed, it means that people can go without commercials for a week or more. While existing channels get rebuilt, RSF, to everyone's relief, will hit the airwaves right away.

TV Commercial

A middle aged couple is shown in a well appointed suburban home. One of their children comes through the front door, coughing. He struggles with the wind and rain to shut the door.

M: I can't believe it! It's one storm after another!
Steel drums build in the background and a ray of sunshine comes through the door.
Do you know what I'm thinking?

F: Not so fast honey. Music and sunshine fade away. Do you remember what it's like in the Carribbean? We don't need to travel for flies and mosquitoes. We'll have them here in a few months.

M: That's right. Plus, we'll have to get used to the heat again. And I thought summer would never end.

F: So why go back to it? Also, do want that pale yellow stuff they call "Beer" down there? It looks like Bono's old sunglasses. Theme from FC de Kampioenen fades in.

M: My goodness. Where can we take the family for a nice vacation?

F: Belgium!

M: Really?

F: Of course! You can get real beer. There are plenty of deserted beaches at this time of year, and we can eat Belgian waffles, Dutch pancakes and lots of fries! Besides, Julius Caesar recommended it back in the day. He said, "The Belgae are the bravest of all the Gauls."

M: No kidding! I'll bet that means we'll get great service! You're right honey, this is the best idea I've had in a long time!

F: Close-up, rolls eyes. Music builds.

Long shot of the family, bundled up and running happily through puddles on a rainy beach. Theme from FC de Kampioenen is dominant now.

Voiceover: Belgium. Come for the weather.

Copyright notice: Feel free to link to this commercial or quote from it. If you produce it, that's €50 and a copy on DVD for my mother.

Anyway, here are some Belgian links that go further to promote the country and culture:

Radiobooks: This is the link to Radioboeken in English. The series has been discontinued, but the episodes are still available. Dutch and Flemish authors read their works. Most are about half an hour long.

deBuren: This is the publisher that sent me Kaas. They also promote Dutch language culture all over the world. One of their current efforts is...

citybooks: Artists, writers and photographers riff on their favorite cities. Most pieces are short, and they give you a feel for the locations.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chapter 1

Kaas (Cheese) is more of a human story than a Belgian one. It begins with a letter that forms the basis for the book. We see J. Greshoff getting his mail. As he starts to read, the reader reads with him. The letter pictured doesn't look 283 pages long, but it does look bigger than usual.

The letter begins with the death of the writer's mother. It is very touching as he tells about her last days, her smile, her declining lucidity, her fidgeting as she slowly disembowels pillows and scatters the stuffing everywhere and finally, her mania for peeling potatoes. The family accommodates her, bringing her buckets of them to peel. While I have not known anyone to spend their last weeks doing such things, I feel like I should have. I have seen similar actions in those near the end, hanging on in odd ways.

Reading in Dutch remains challenging. I still use my dictionary and computer. I have graduated to the verb book. I use the computer dictionaries a lot less than I used to. It's faster if you can get by with books alone.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Why bother?

I like Dutch language reading material, but I asked myself that question anyway. In my first blog, Learning Dutch with Geert Mak, I covered the novelty angle. I made it to the end. Unlike De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century), Kaas is available in English. It is not exactly a best seller. It's somewhere around 350,000 on Amazon, which means that it sold to about 10 people, 3 of whom returned it because they wanted a book about food.

Still, there is some uniqueness to the book. I'm reading the graphic novel adaptation by Dick Matena. In terms of format, it's a first for me, maybe a 1.5. The last book I read in this format was a compilation from Mad magazine. Also, while Kaas is available in English, this adaptation is not.

This blog will be shorter for 3 reasons:

1. The book is shorter. The last one was 499 pages long, and it had very few pictures. This is a well illustrated 283 pages.

2. I can read in Dutch faster than I could before.

3. There will be far less cultural commentary. While the Dutch community in Southern California is small, the Flemish community is even smaller. Instead of hosting a festival, they meet at a restaurant when they want to get everyone together.

This blog will have additional ideas for promoting the language and Flanders itself. For the moment, I can't think of how to promote the place. A couple of years ago, I went to the Los Angeles Travel Show. There was a small booth for Flanders, where one lady was working alone. The booth featured Tintin, an international icon who is almost completely unknown here. Some better ideas might have been Audrey Hepburn, Hercule Poirot, Eddy Merckx, St. Damien or Django Reinhardt.